The right to feel fear (and other unpleasant emotions)

I felt like killing myself last night.

I was a little surprised, as I hadn’t felt that way since I’d arrived in Country X. I’ve been here a month now.

So, I went to bed thinking, “Now what set that off?”

I don’t know what did even now. I had some strange dreams, but nothing answered the question. I’m not even sure that trying to sort through my day and my thoughts for what set off my reaction is an effective approach. I have started to think it just keeps my focus on everything that might be wrong, including problems I hadn’t noticed before, and I end up with much more to be anxious about.

But I do feel anxious today. Almost debilitatingly so. I mean, I got through the day, but I didn’t buy cilantro today at the vegetable market because I’d never done that before, and each new thing I need to do makes me even more anxious.

I have spent a lot of years trying to find ways to soothe anxiety. Most of them have not made any noticeable difference. But I realized this afternoon that that is definitely the wrong approach. Trying to conquer anxiety is like trying not to think about white bears. The harder you try, the worse it gets. Anxiety is something else just to roll with. Now, maybe that isn’t the answer for everyone. But I think it’s the answer for me.

On the one hand, integration is about acceptance. Acceptance involves feeling what is there to feel—whether the feeling is pleasant or unpleasant.

And on the other, fear is something I could not afford to feel as a child. If I felt it, I might show it, and you can’t let a sociopath see your fear. Then he knows all the more clearly how to torture you. So fear is something that was taken away from me as a child: it is a part of the human experience I lost. Of course, I did feel fear, but that needed to be carefully shuttered off from my awareness. Part of being a person is being afraid sometimes, so today I feel afraid. It isn’t such a great feeling, but it’s mine.

Addendum: I wrote this the day before yesterday, and I do know now what set of my suicidal thoughts Fatigue, it turns out, is an important trigger for this kind of thinking for me. There are other triggers, but fatigue is a big one. It’s essentially a flashback to moments in my childhood when I just wanted to give up and let my father’s torture kill me.

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Fear God

hierarchy2I grew up with a God that found fault. We were in constant danger of having “the wrong spirit,” which could be evidenced in any number of ways, from wearing the wrong hairstyle to speaking one’s mind too assertively. Heaven help us if we were to die without having had time to repent every sin we might have committed. Even after repentance, forgiveness was never assured. The stakes were high. We needed to be that perfect lamb of God.

For us, “What would Jesus do?” was not just a figure of speech, or even a general guide for life. (Although it wasn’t a catch phrase then. Certainly, we didn’t use it.) It was a command.

The ways you could be punished for falling short were many: car accidents were a favourite, so were losing all of your friends, contracting HIV or becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol. Of course, there was also always hell. But it was clear that hell could begin now—while you were still alive. And it was also clear that an early trip could be part of things too.

Our God was an angry god. Nothing much could be done about this.

So it’s really no wonder that at some deep level I feel I don’t deserve to live. I am not perfect. I am no Lamb of God. I am not even a Christian, but I’m not sure I was any more safe from judgment when I was one.

What you can't see is the fear.
What you can’t see is the fear.

That kind of perfection just isn’t possible. I’m not sure it’s even desirable. If I think that’s the way the world works, I’m really not fit to live. And I am in danger because of that. Terrible danger.

It also means, when the overcrowded bus careens dangerously around a sharp turn on a mountain road, there is no God to whisper a prayer to. In fact, God offers no consolation at all. He cannot be trusted to offer protection, much less mercy. He is simply someone else to be obeyed and to fear.

As children, we were told early and often to fear God. I have to admit I still may. Although I thought I turned all of these ideas on their heads years ago, it appears that the image of God and the fear that came with it are still there inside me.

The ideas are gone, but not the emotion, not the core belief. And it has been very effective at doing one thing in my life: making me anxious.

My niece, who is being raised in the same cult as I was, pulls out her hair and her eyelashes. I feel lucky I only pick at my cuticles and count things.

A God who demands so much from us—more than the creatures He created can do—is no god at all, but evil. We were raised to worship evil.

Priya says, about the white dog, that I will gain blessings from feeding her biscuits every day when I see her. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I know it says something about the God she believes in. It says her God believes in compassion. Mine should too.

Maine Woods: Pure Nostalgia

She never does those eyes for the camera.
She never does those eyes for the camera.

This is a cat post. I’m sorry to those of you who hate the cat posts. But it’s just that kind of day.

I’m feeling nostalgic this morning. Packing will do that to you.

My cat doesn’t like new things. She doesn’t like new people, new sounds, new animals, or new places. She adjusts to them, but she doesn’t like them when they are still new. She’s like one of those kids who loves to swim, but never wants to go in the water–she always thinks it will be too cold. But if you throw her in, she’s happy as a clam the rest of the afternoon.

Which is why, after more than a decade of never putting a paw outside except to visit the vet, my cat is afraid of the outdoors. She is actually afraid of the hallway of my apartment building. Standing in the doorway with the door open is deeply distasteful to her. She’d rather run away.

That's not my studio, but it looked pretty much like that.
That’s not my studio, but it looked pretty much like that.

But I used to carry her up the hill every day on my shoulder from the cabin where I stayed to my studio across the road where I painted. This was in Maine. I spent a couple of summers there–in Skowhegan, in the middle part of the state–maintaining the library for an artist’s residency. It was a part-time gig, and I had a shared studio. So in the afternoons, I took the cat up the hill with me and I painted, while she stalked mice.

Before dinner, I took the cat down again, still on my shoulder, and went for a swim in the ice-cold lake that made my hands turn blue and numb. And she went on stalking mice.

Coming home to the cabin in the evenings was sometimes a messy business. I remember the day she brought home four little rodents–a mouse and three baby moles, with their big, pufffy paws. All headless, blood oozing out. My cat is small, but she’s a vicious hunter. It’s only been in the last few years that flies have survived in my home for more than a few hours. Now, she just watches them. It’s a shame. All that instinct and biology gone to waste from arthritis and just fatigue, I suppose.

roadThe walk up the hill and down again was always invigoratingly risky–sharp claws. Because, like I said, she doesn’t like new things, or new people, and she does not like cars. So all would be well so long as we didn’t see anyone. She was used to the woods and the walk. That was fine. But if someone happened to drive past at the same time–well, think of those headless moles and my shoulders. Same claws. Sharp little devils.

The worst were the people who wanted to come and talk to us. She is cute, my cat, I’ll give you that. She has these enormous, beseeching eyes, and what’s funny about this is that they go away when she’s not feeling well. They aren’t just like that. Anyway, if we ran into someone and they liked cats, “Oh, she’s so cute,” they’d say, and come closer. And my cat would make a dive for it. Off my shoulders.

I heal well though. No scars.

The Interview

What I drink just to wake up.
What I drink just to wake up.

So, when I am usually drinking my 6 cups of tea and pondering ideas for blog posts, I was Skyping with four individuals half-way around the globe from me.

I do think it went rather well. With any luck, I did convince them that they should want me to teach in one of their schools, and I will find myself on their side of the world in a few months, teaching in a place that may or may not have regular electricity but that will have walls and benches in the classroom. Yippee!

Oh, and chalk and a blackboard. Also, big plusses….

At any rate, I enjoyed it. Which suggest to me either I’m nuts (a possibility) or it went well (hopefully also a possibility).

I’ve been watching a sitcom called Reggie Perrin and he has two young subordinates known as Ant and Ste who are comically enthusiastic. I believe it is Ste (and I may have it backwards here) who says about every new idea, “I am almost physically excited!” And then does an odd sort of fist pump after that.

I was almost physically excited. I may have, in fact, been physically excited by the interview.

You can catch the Ant/Ste/Reggie interaction at 6:18 or so.

Make of that what you will.

I was thinking about this last night, lying awake. Not the excitement, because I didn’t know about that part yet. But the job and the change it means for me.

But will she help me pack?
But will she help me pack?

I am not scared of the change, but I am sad. For many reasons really. I love this city. I have, after many years of holding myself at a distance from nearly everyone, friends I enjoy. I have colleagues that have become friends that I would like to keep seeing.

I cannot bring the cat with me. I do, in fact, expect her to drop dead any day now, but she is not actually dead. Or even very sick. She is just old. That kind of old and really keeping it together that people usually do drop dead suddenly in the midst of. “She always seemed so young!” we say at their funerals.

But she was 95.

Which, when I look at the age conversion charts in the vet’s office, is about where she is. Except cats have these really weird life spans–dying of age-related diseases at anywhere from 8 years to 30.

And it seems to me for the last week or so that I have pushed away that sadness, somewhat out of habit perhaps.

I'll miss this.
I’ll miss this.

I have had to make a number of very significant changes in my life over the years, some of them rather abrupt and sudden. It has often worked out that there was a moment when I needed to act, or at least it felt that way. And if I did not seize the moment, the opportunity to make the change would be lost.

Sometimes, the moment was about external circumstances–someone made an offer they aren’t going to make again. And sometimes it’s about state of mind. I was fed up enough, angry enough, brave enough that I had the energy for the change. And if I did not make the change, I risked letting the will to do so disappear.

So I sometimes feel afraid to let my trepidation, my sorrow about change rise to the surface. I’m afraid it will make me lose my nerve. Or even that managing the negative emotions will become so all consuming, I’ll be unable to do what I actually need to do from a practical standpoint to move forward.

I realize now it won’t though. I can have all of my feelings about this change.

More on Safety

A lot of things don’t scare me, or at least they don’t scare me very much.

I am not afraid of being injured, assaulted, raped, or killed. I’d prefer they didn’t happen, of course. I take steps to avoid them. But they don’t keep me up at night. I don’t worry about them irrationally.

Because those things you live through. Or you don’t. But whichever way it goes–whether you are writing a blog post in six months detailing your recovery from the even or whether you have left a grieving cat and a dehydrated plant behind–those things are over and done with.

But I am afraid of captivity.

I think it’s important to know what really scares you. There are a lot of bad things out there (as the song goes, I suppose). We aren’t all equally scared of the same things.

Coming out of the bathroom, a lot of people use a paper towel to protect themselves from germs on the door-handle, although probably 2/3 of those who touched that handle just washed their hands with soap and warm water and maybe half of those even did it for long enough to sing “Happy Birthday.” But I never see anyone use a paper towel to open the front door of other buildings where no one at all has washed their hands recently. Some people are afraid of bathroom germs, but not regular germs.

I think it’s good to know that kind of thing.

I was on my way to work this morning when I realized that I am safe from what I’m really afraid of.

Let me explain. People malignant enough to kidnap someone, keep them in captivity, and torture them are looking for a certain type of victim. I don’t mean a blonde or a school teacher or someone who looks like his mom. I mean a compliant victim, a victim who won’t cause too many problems.

I cause too many problems. I know this because, as I’ve said elsewhere on here, I told my dad one day in the car driving home from the Motel 6 that I wasn’t turning tricks anymore for him. And he took me out in the garage and hanged me until I passed out and I said that was fine. Kill me. I’d rather be dead than keep doing this. And that was the end of it. And I suppose he found some other poor child to torture. But it wasn’t me.

They know–people like him–if you’re going to be difficult. If you are going to cause too many problems. They know this before they speak to you, because they have learned to look for it. Like some people can spot the alcoholic in a crowd, or the wife-beater, and at the end of the night that’s who they go home with. Even if it’s a habit they’re trying to kick. Our inclinations can almost have a scent to them.

And maybe it isn’t the same thing for you. Maybe you’re scared of something else. But I do encourage you to know what it is, to know it intimately. It helps to know.